Rare and Radiant
April 15th, 2023
Beneath Nora’s home, lying on a bed beyond the reach of the waking world, Lenore slept. Freed from the drowning of her thoughts by the coma-inducing solution Nora had worked into her, her mind began its slow crawl from the abstraction of the subconscious and into something more vivid. In that quiet twilight world between waking and true unconsciousness, Lenore dreamed.
So many people in Rome dreamed fitfully. They dreamed of the chaos and terror of the Days of Revelation, losing family and friends to monsters from myth and legend. Many were relieved upon waking, knowing that they had at last found a modicum of safety in the waking world.
Lenore, however, dreamt peacefully of another time. When one’s life was a nightmare of foreign thoughts, death, and the constant adrenaline ride of the hunt, only in dreams could she find refuge, and now at last she could truly dream again.
She was young, truly young in mind and body, surely no more than six. None of the conditioning training had begun, and she had no idea of the course that had been set for her. She was merely a child, one of three, living happily in the URIEL compound somewhere in Central Asia far from prying eyes. It had been unusual, though she hardly knew that at the time. She knew now they were being raised as test subjects rather than children, but it had still been her childhood. They might have called it “Recreational Stimulation” and “Necessary Pre-Conditioned Education”, but it had simply been playing and learning to them. Things all children did.
They knew their names from the start. The three of them were merely days apart in age, but they knew that she, Eleanor-1, was the oldest and treated her as such. Eleanor-2 was the middle child, often overlooked and a troublemaker for attention. Eleanor-3 was the youngest and most childish, the loudest when she laughed and cried.
They had parents as well, just like other children. They had their Father, Dr. Joachim, the mastermind of their creation, a harsh and often terrifying presence who was thankfully absent for much of their early lives. Even trying to remember his face, Lenore could only summon the shadowed face of a thin man with cruel eyes.
Their “Mother” had been much more active in their early development. She had always been a mother to them, even if her nametag had read “Project Lead Dr. Varia Archeille”. She called herself their mother, and they did the same in turn. It had been she who had given them the names that they grew up with. Eleanor-3 had been called Ellen. Eleanor-2 had been named Nora. And she, Eleanor-1, was called Lenore.
She sounded the word out in her mind. It was so familiar, yet the images she summoned were so unlike her life as it was that it almost felt to her as if it had been the name of an entirely different person. “Lenore” Nora had called her when she tried to plot her thousandth escape attempt, jealous of the affection Ellen received from Mother and with her eyes forever on the distant horizon. “Lenore” Ellen had called for her when she scraped her knee, always running faster than her legs were able to carry. “Lenore” Mother had named her, and spoke with authority when she failed to keep her younger sisters in line.
Lenore, the strongest and fastest, the most reasonable and most responsible, the eldest and the wisest. She had been the counter to bold Nora and youthful Ellen. So much they had asked of her, and she had delivered all she could. They had been a family, after all, how could she do less?
When she was thirteen is when they had begun their work on all of them, the end of their childhood and the beginning of the waking nightmare. Lenore’s mind clouded as memories of reality mixed with her own suppressed nightmares. Again she pushed back the clock to a younger time, when they were hardly seven, a happier time, away from all of them. A sweet memory that could not be invaded or encroached upon.
At their Mother’s insistence, they were allowed to play in the grassy courtyard of the compound, a square space barely fifty meters across. But it had sun, grass, and the smell of earth, and the three of them loved their daily hour in the open, even when it rained or grew unbearably hot.
“Lenooooore!” Ellen’s voice called across the space. Lenore was pulled into her dream’s reality, young again with fresh eyes as she relived the memory, and watching Ellen, all bright-eyed and short-haired, running to her as her eyes strained with coming tears. Oh no, she thought, what happened this time.
“Nora…Nora jumped all over my flowers!” She cried out to her, struggling for breath from her combined crying and running.
“I did not!” Nora was right behind her, trying to subvert Ellen’s case before the two of them could round on her in full.
“You did so!” Ellen objected, pointing to where they had run from. Lenore’s sharp eyes could see the crushed stems of an uneven patch of dandelions. “See! They’re right there all crushed!”
“Okay I did…” Nora said, backpedaling, arms crossed over her chest. “But it was an accident. I was trying to climb the wall.”
Lenore looked from one to the other. To any person, their Mother included, the three of them were virtually identical. All of them, however, could instantly tell one from the other. It was minor details that coalesced into a whole, so unfailing they could be differentiated at a distance. Nora held herself much more firmly, straight-backed and balanced on the balls of her feet as if to look taller than she was. Her arms always moved aggressively or defensively, but never passively, and she had a distinct stubbornness that was always present on her face. Ellen, meanwhile, was much more passive and loose in her motions, occasionally erratic but always exaggerated. She never did things by half. If something was funny she would laugh until she was all but choking herself; if something was sad she would cry for hours; if she was angered she would be in a fuming mood for days. Lenore had no idea what her tells were, but the other two insisted they could always tell her apart, and Ellen insisted she was tallest, despite Nora’s accusations otherwise.
This memory, however, still had shades of the dream. In all of them she could still see the ghosts of the people they were to become. Lenore would indeed become the tallest. The muscular therapy and metabolic treatments saw to a painful growth spurt that gave her an entire two inches on Nora’s height. Nora’s stubbornness would gain the character of a sickness on her face. Her skin would pale from an olive-tan to almost snow-white from a combination of stress, skin damage, and lack of sun. Her eyes would sink into her skull as shadows of weariness would grow prematurely around them. Ellen would remain small, the experiments done upon her stunting her physical growth as well as mental. Her bright eyes would become crazed and maddened, her erratic movements growing into a series of pained twitches that would keep her from sleeping.
“Nora.” Lenore’s own authoritative voice drew back her mind. “Why were you jumping up and down over there?”
“The wall’s short over there.” Nora said, trying to look as innocent as possible, though she could never beat Ellen at that game. “I just wanted to see if I could climb onto the roof. It’s not my fault Ellen’s stupid flowers grow there.”
“They’re not stupid!” Ellen shouted. “They’re mine and you ruined them!”
Lenore sighed, but could still feel the bite of nostalgia. This had ben her childhood, and for so briefly sweet a time this had been the greatest of hardships for them, and the greatest divisions between them.
“Nora” Lenore said in her most authoritative voice. “Apologize to Ellen.”
“But-“ Nora began to protest but Lenore cut her off “Whether you meant to or not, Ellen really loves her flowers and you hurt them.”
“Mmm…”Nora grumbled. “M’sorry…”
“Say it better.” Lenore said. “Say it like you were saying it to Mother.”
“Sorry Ellen…” Nora groaned. “I didn’t mean to hurt your flowers.”
Lenore turned next to Ellen. “Now Ellen, Nora did something dumb but she apologized.”
“But my flowers!”
Lenore sighed. “Remember last winter? When it snowed and you were really happy, but then saw all the flowers died and you cried until your face hurt?” She asked.
“Uh huh…” Ellen said, already threatening tears again.
“Remember what Mother said?” Lenore asked, but Ellen shook her head.
“Mother said that they would grow back in the spring. And they did! Now winter is a lot harder on plants then Nora stomping on them, right?”
“So they’ll come back?” Ellen’s eyes filled with hope.
“Yes they will.” Lenore said emphatically. “Now, Nora’s apologized and she said she won’t jump on them again. Go take care of your flowers, I’m sure she didn’t smash all of them with her big stupid feet.”
“Okay!” Ellen said, rushing back to her makeshift garden as Nora scowled.
“My feet aren’t stupid…”
“I’m trying to help, okay?” Lenore sighed.
“You’re not Mother.”
“No, but Mother said I was in charge when she’s not around.” Lenore said. “Why were you trying to get on the roof?”
“No reason…” Nora said, once more trying to lie before a glare from Lenore pulled her back. “Fine I was…”
“Trying to run away again.” Lenore finished it for her. “Why?”
“Because you don’t need me here and I don’t want to be here.” Nora said stubbornly. “I want to go outside.”
“We are outside.”
“Shut up! You know what I mean!”
Lenore frowned. “Do you know how upset Mother would be if you ran away? Or how angry Father would get?”
“I don’t care about Mother!” Nora all but shouted, and Lenore glanced worriedly towards Ellen, but saw she was entirely consumed by picking up the pieces of her dandelions. “And Father doesn’t care about us!”
“And what about Ellen?” Lenore asked “She’d cry for days and days if you ran away.”
Lenore frowned. “Don’t lie to me, I know you hate making Ellen sad. That’s why you said sorry even though I wasn’t Mother.”
“Hmph.” Nora simply made a stubborn noise.
“Mother’s really busy with work, Father too.” Lenore said, more quietly to try and make Nora lower her voice. “That doesn’t mean they don’t care.”
“They might as well” Nora huffed.
“But I care.” Lenore said, and Nora turned away, not wanting to look at her. Grabbing her shoulders, Lenore turned her around again. “When Mother’s not around that’s when I’m in charge. She told me I shouldn’t boss you around because that’s my job. My job is to take care of both of you.”
“Then why don’t you help me?” Nora asked.
“Mother said it would be bad if we ran away.” Lenore said. “And I can’t help you if you’re not here. So I’m going to take care of you.”
Somewhere outside the dream, outside of the safety of the memory crafted for herself, Lenore slept quietly on a bed in a basement in Rome. Beside her, hands folded and elbows resting on her knees, was her younger sister, watching her sleep peacefully and with no appearance of stopping. Gently, perhaps for the hundredth time, Nora did all she could allow herself to do, brushing a few loose and stubborn hairs out of Lenore’s face as she watched her. To all the world Lenore was asleep, and perhaps beneath that façade she truly was dreaming, of happier times when the two had been three, when they had been children together in ignorance.
It would be cruel, Nora knew, to wake Lenore from such a dream. But she needed her to, she wanted her to, if only because Nora couldn’t bear to live much longer being the only one left. But she would not let Lenore keep living in a nightmare outside the dream. She had failed Ellen, failed to protect her sisters, and she would not do so again.
“I’m going to take care of you, Lenore.” She said quietly into the darkness. “But please, I need you to wake up.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa